Kota Bharu, Malaysia’s northernmost major city in the state of Kelantan, can often just be a blip on traveller’s radars as they move on to Perhentian Islands and sights further south. This is a shame!

While Kota Bharu tourist attractions may be low key, this is a nice city to visit where you can see another slice of Malaysia with its traditional Malay heritage and primarily devout Muslim population. Being close to the Thai border, there are also slices of Thai culture around here too.

It’s a city of over 300,000 people which gives it a good energy while still having a compact centre. It definitely has a different feel than other Malaysian cities as this bigger Muslim influence is evident.

Most of the best things to do in Kota Bharu are located within walking distance to each other meaning that even if you only have a day, you can still see many of the places to visit in Kota Bharu, Kelantan.

Top 14 Things To Do In Kota Bharu [2019]

There are also some good day trip options here with traditional Malay villages nearby as well as Thai Buddhist temples. It’s also a fun place to get to via the jungle railway which can take you all the way from Johor Bahru.

Below, I share what to do in Kota Bharu, Kelantan as well as tips on where to stay in Kota Bharu, how to get there and how to get around. There is also a map of the Kota Bharu attractions and I share a one day itinerary you can do if you don’t have much time in Kota Bharu.

Let’s start!

Top 14 Best Things To Do In Kota Bharu, Kelantan

Note that most attractions in Kota Bharu are closed on Friday. Most museums are open 8:45am – 4:45pm daily except Fridays at time of publishing. They tend to be simple affairs.

Learn Kelantanese Culture At Istana Jahar Museum

Istana Jahar

Istana Jahar

This is the best museum attraction in Kota Bharu where you can learn about Kelantanese ritual and crafts. You can learn about batik weaving, jewellery, clothing and ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and circumcision. You can also see old weapons and a long boat.

It’s an interesting place and it’s housed in a gorgeous traditional building built in 1887. I could have spent an hour or two here reading about the ceremonies.

Inside Istana Jahar

Inside Istana Jahar

If you love learning about the traditional culture of the place, this should be your top place to go in Kota Bharu. Signs are in English and Malay.

Current cost for foreigners is RM4 adults and RM2 for kids with Malaysians paying half this. You can find latest opening hours and prices here.

Have A Coffee At Kedai Kopi White House

When you have finished looking at Istana Jahar, pop into this Chinese coffee house for a very local experience and a pick me up! Perfectly located by this museum and surrounded by many others, it’s a stop that’s very easy to fit into your itinerary as well.

You can find it just to the right as you exit Istana Jahar and to the right again at the corner. Look for orange brick.

Only open mornings.

Learn The History Of Islam In The State At Muzium Islam

Muzium Islam

Muzium Islam

Muzium Islam tells the history of Islam in the state of Kelantan via photos and artefacts. It’s housed in old villa which was once the first school of Islamic instruction.

Current cost for foreigners is RM4 adults and RM2 for kids with Malaysians paying half this. You can find the latest opening hours here.

Learn About Royal Life At Istana Batu

Istana Batu Kota Bharu

Istana Batu Kota Bharu

Housed in a pretty building constructed in 1939 that was once the crown Prince’s palace, this is now a museum about royal life in Kelantan with decorated rooms, family photos and personal belongings. It also displays the history of the Kelantan Sultanate and gives you an insight into what their life may have been like. Although the history part is only in Malay for the most part.

Istana Batu furnished room Kota Bharu

Inside Istana Batu – one of the furnished rooms. They are fun to walk through

It’s worth a quick visit to see a different side of life in Kelantan.

Current cost for foreigners is RM4 adults and RM2 for kids with Malaysians paying half this. You can find the latest opening hours here.

See Handicrafts At Kampung Kraftangan

Kampung Kraftangan

Kampung Kraftangan

This small handicraft museum opposite Istana Batu is housed in another great looking building built in the 90s with only locally sourced materials and carvings. There are different types of weaving, batik and embroidery on display and some of the collection is for sale.

Even if you aren’t interested in the museum part, you can enter the grounds and just enjoy the nice surrounds.

Current cost for foreigners is RM4 adults and RM2 for kids with Malaysians paying half this. You can find the latest opening hours here.

Shop At Central Market

Central Market Kelantan Kota Bharu attractions

Central Market Kota Bharu

Located close to the museums listed above, the Central Market is worth a stop as it’s one of the most colourful in Malaysia! Early morning is the best time when it’s likely to be most active.

Downstairs is all about fresh produce whereas upstairs you can find batik, spice and home wares. There is also a great array of food stalls if you are hungry.

Restaurants at Central Market, Kota Bharu

Restaurants at Central Market, Kota Bharu

There is particularly a great area to sit down and enjoy some lunch in the street between the Central Market and the Bazaar next door. We had a great meal here!

Open daily 7am – 6pm but it’s best to visit before noon.

Check Out Local Handicrafts At Bazaar Buluh Kubu

womens clothing stalls at Bazaar Buluh Kubu, Kota Bharu

Inside Bazaar Buluh Kubu

Across from the Central Market is the Bazaar Buluh Kubu. This is the place to go to buy batik, clothing and other local handicrafts like handmade shoes, kites and musical instruments.

It’s a good place to go to get a unique souvenir although it was majority women’s clothing stalls when we went.

Open 9am – 6pm except Fridays.

Visit Muzium Negeri Kelantan (Kelantan State Museum)

Kelantan State Museum

Muzium Negeri Kelantan

Muzium Negeri Kelantan is the Kota Bharu attraction to visit to learn more about the history and culture of the state.

Unfortunately, this museum is small without many exhibits and the signs aren’t very good. Most are just in Malay and ones in English are often too far away to read them or poorly lit. This makes it hard to get as much out of this museum as you could.

However, there are some cool exhibits like caves, musical instruments and shadow puppets.

Inside Muzium Negeri Kelantan. There isn’t much more to the non-games part than the upper level pictures here

What was very cool when we visited and makes this museum a great place to visit in Kota Bharu is that there was a big exhibit on games and old games consoles. 

This was all signed in Malay only. However, you can play many of the games and they are so much fun! It was also well air conditioned in this area so perfect if you have some time to kill or have kids. It was definitely hard to get my 7 year old to leave.

Entry costs were weird. We were charged RM4 for an adult and RM5 for 2 kids – even though I only had one. So RM9 in total for one adult and one kid and not what their website says. Malaysians should be half price.

You can find the latest opening hours and (possible) prices here.

Experience Traditional Arts At Gelanggang Seni Cultural Centre

This cultural centre is the place to go for local cultural events like top-spinning, kite-making, puppet shows, drumming and silat (a Malay martial art). Events are held regularly from February to October except during Ramadan.

Admission is free! Opening hours are 3:30pm – 5:30pm, Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, and it’s usually open one evening a week as well. Stop by to get their latest schedule.

Check Out Colourful Street Art

Streetart Gallery, Kota Bharu

Streetart Gallery, Kota Bharu

The Streetart Gallery is worth adding to your list of what to see in Kota Bharu. Located between several connecting alley ways between Jalan Ismail and Jalan Dato Pati (see map below) are these impressions of both happy images of locals living and working and the surrounding jungle as well as pictures of the suffering and conflict in the Middle East.

Streetart Gallery, Kota Bharu

Streetart Gallery, Kota Bharu

It’s worth the short walk from the markets and museums.

We also found a second alley with street art close to the main bus station. It runs parallel to the bus station a few blocks away when walking towards Istana Jahar.

Both alleys had bird tweets playing on speakers. I’m not really sure why.

See The Birds In The Bird-Singing Field

It’s not just in alleys where you can hear birds! Each year, there is a big bird-singing contest held at Padang Perdana towards the end of August. But if you aren’t visiting at this time, you can still see a bird-singing contest in action most Friday and Saturday mornings at the bird-singing field.

Unfortunately, I have been able to make this event personally but it sounds fun with locals hanging birds in cages on long poles and listening to them sing. You may even get the chance to help with the judging of the winner!

Visit Pantai Cahaya Bulan (Moonlight Beach)

Pantai Cahaya Bulan

Pantai Cahaya Bulan

If you would like some beach time, Pantai Cahaya Bulan is your best choice close to Kota Bharu. It’s about a 30 minute drive from downtown Kota Bharu and, while a nice stretch, there are problems with sand erosion.

If you are heading to other beach areas, I would give it a miss unless you want a good seafood lunch as this is a good place for one.

Check Out Wat Machimmaram And The Tumpat Region

Wat Machimmaram

Wat Machimmaram

For an excellent half day or full day trip from Kota Bharu, I highly recommend visiting the Tumpat temple area north of Kota Bharu bordering Thailand.

There are numerous Thai Buddhist temples here as well as picturesque villages. It’s an interesting mix of Thai, Malay and Chinese influences.

The best way to visit is via a day tour that your accommodation or the Kota Bharu information centre can organise. Otherwise, you can hire a taxi for a half day or full day to drive you around to the temples of your choice.

The best starting point is Wat Machimmaram. This 50 metre high seated Buddha makes for quite a sight. Inside the temple are murals in both Chinese and Thai style as are the designs of the temple compound. There is also a turtle pond, amulet shop and food and drinks.

It is open daily 9am – 5pm but shut from 12:30pm – 2pm. Entry is free but donations are appreciated.

Eat Everything At Kota Bharu Night Market

food at Kota Bharu night market

This city isn’t known for its nightlife so the best option for what to do in Kota Bharu at night is definitely this night market! Located a couple of blocks from the central market and open every night, this is the best place to try the local food.

Try everything that you can!

One Day Itinerary In Kota Bharu

This itinerary starts with a loop of all the Kota Bharu town attractions. You can walk between them. Most of the attractions do not take long, so I have also included an optional afternoon day trip that you can do if you have time. This really depends on whether you want to enter every museum and see every exhibit and how much you like shopping.

This itinerary starts at the markets, moves on to the Cultural Zone where most the museums above are located as well as some other traditional buildings and then the state museum. Note that on a Friday, many of these attractions are shut. I recommend heading to the bird-singing field instead of the museums.

Kota Bharu Itinerary

  • Start the day at the Central Market. Eat breakfast here
  • If you want to see local handicrafts, take a look at Bazaar Buluh Kubu and then the handicraft museum, Kampung Kraftangan
  • Learn about royal life at Istana Batu
  • Learn about local culture at Istana Jahar
  • Top up with some coffee at the Kedai Kopi White House
  • Optionally, visit the Muzium Islam
  • Walk to the Streetart Gallery
  • Finish with the Muzium Negeri Kelantan

At this point you can:

  • Watch a performance at Gelanggang Seni Cultural Centre OR
  • Head to Wat Machimmaram if you have enough time

In the evening, have dinner at the Kota Bharu night market.

If you just have a morning or afternoon before or after leaving Perhentian Islands, you can still do the first part of this itinerary; just only enter the attractions in Kota Bharu that most interest you.

If you are here in between ferries and flights, you can store your luggage at the central bus station. It’s RM1 for small bags, RM2 for big. Our bags were carry on size and still considered big though.

Look for this window:

Luggage storage at Kota Bharu bus station

Where To Stay In Kota Bharu

In my opinion, the best area to stay in Kota Bharu is in the downtown area in or near the cultural zone so you can walk to most the attractions above. Here are my top options depending on your budget.

Hotel Perdana: Best Hotel In Kota Bharu

This 4 star hotel is my top pick of the hotels in Kota Bharu. This is because it’s a short walk from the museums and markets, has a great range of room types, a good variety of facilities and consistently gets great reviews. It’s also a great price with rooms starting at around RM200.

You can chose between standard hotel rooms, pool view rooms and suites, all the way up to a presidential suite! After a hot and sweaty day sightseeing, you can relax in the pool. There is also a gym, business centre and a range of eating and drinking options.

Some rooms are on the older side and could do with a renovation, but the hotel is still great value and your best choice in Kota Bharu.

Click here for the latest prices.

OYO 1139 W Hotel: Best Budget Option

This 2 star hotel is a bargain about a kilometre’s walk from the Central Market. It’s not as centrally located as the Hotel Perdana but it’s close enough to walk to the cultural zone or you can get a cheap taxi to avoid the heat.

There are single, double and triple rooms as well as suites including a family suite with bedding for four. Rooms come with private bathrooms, desks, wifi and air conditioning. They are on the small side.

With prices starting at RM60, there isn’t much in the way of facilities but there are restaurants nearby.

Click here for the latest prices.

Click here to read our full guide to the best hotels in Kota Bharu.

Map Of What To Do In Kota Bharu

Getting To Kota Bharu

Kota Bharu bus station

Kota Bharu bus station

Kota Bharu is quite easy to get to since it is a major city for this part of Malaysia.

There is an airport with daily flights from Kuala Lumpur and Penang as well as regular flights to Kuching, Kota Kinabalu, Melaka and Singapore. You can search for flights here.

There are direct buses from many parts of Malaysia which you can search for here.

A more exciting way to get to Kota Bharu is via the jungle railway. The nearest station is around 10 kilometres away at Wakaf Baharu. The train starts in Johor Bahru and travels through Malaysia’s interior. You can also take a train from Kuala Lumpur and change in Gemas to the jungle railway.

Click here to see the jungle trains route, the schedule and latest prices.

If you are coming to or from the Perhentian Islands, read our detailed guide for how to get there by clicking here. If you are coming from Kuala Lumpur, read our detailed guide here.

Getting Around Kota Bharu

There is a decent bus system in Kota Bharu that will get you to most attractions, although it is much easier to get taxis. Use the Grab phone app to order one and set the price.

Many of the attractions are within walking distance to each other so you can cover off many attractions on this things to do list without needing transport once you are in the centre.

Kota Bharu With Kids

Duplo table for kids at Kelantan State Museum

Duplo table for kids at Kelantan State Museum

I visited Kota Bharu with my 7 year old. While the city attractions aren’t particularly kid friendly, the games exhibit at the Kelantan State Museum is definitely a highlight. He could have stayed here forever. They even have a duplo table for little ones. I am not sure how long this is staying here though.

Otherwise, my son enjoyed the weapons exhibited at Istana Jahar and the temples in the Tumpat region work well with kids.

Final Words

Many travellers pass straight through Kota Bharu on their way to Perhentian Islands which is a shame – don’t be one of them!

Kota Bharu is a different part of Malaysia which is interesting to explore. It’s also a very easy city to visit a range of attractions thanks to most things being located close together. It is also worth taking the time to get to the Tumpat region to see yet another side of this great country.

Given the more devout Muslim population, I had worried about how I should dress as a woman. I wore trousers and a t shirt which covered my shoulders. This seemed fine and I felt perfectly comfortable. 

I would not have felt comfortable wearing less than this though – I only saw one (Chinese background) woman who wasn’t wearing a head covering and the women definitely dress more conservatively here than elsewhere with the Indian and Chinese background populations being far less represented in our wanderings.

I only saw two other obvious foreigners here which added to the experience – it felt like I had ventured somewhere far away (in a very cool way) when Kota Bharu really isn’t!

So, even if you just have a day or an afternoon/morning you can see quite a few attractions and it’s worth taking the time.

Looking for more options for Kota Bharu accommodation? Find our full guide here. You can also find all our other guides to the best trip possible to Kota Bharu here.

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